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Green shoots: how to wean the events industry off unsustainable practices


By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter

September 14, 2021 | 6 min read

Marketers talk a big game about their sustainability initiatives – usually at the same events that leave a trail of trash behind them. The carbon footprint of traveling for pitches, shows and conferences can be enormous; and an industry as global as marketing has those events threaded inextricably into its calendar. As part of our Experiential Marketing Deep Dive, The Drum explores how weaning the industry off unsustainable shows will take time and effort – but is vital if we want to have a viable industry in the future.

live events

The events industry needs to change to survive

If you leave a major event without a hangover, you might consider you’ve gotten away without paying a price. But the reality is that all events – B2B and B2C – incur enormous costs, especially environmentally. Mike White, chief executive officer and founder of Lively, is on record as stating that half-a-million dollar structures from Cannes have to be trashed after the fact. Estimates are that the Creamfields festival results in 60,000 abandoned tents at a cost of around £1m.

The events industry has a greenwashing problem by proxy. While many of the brands that put them on have green credentials elsewhere, the nature of an event means there is significant carbon cost. According to the ‘Making industrial exhibitions green’ report based on events in 2019: “A three-day conference with 800 attendees has a carbon footprint of 455 tonnes of CO2 equivalents, corresponding to an average of 0.57 tonnes CO2-eq per participant. The main contributors to these emissions are travel activities, which accounts for a total of 378 tonnes CO2-eq or 0.47 tonnes CO2-eq per attendee. These are followed by hotel overnight stays ... and catering.”

The marketing world in particular has grappled with how to marry its commitment to a greener future with the desire to be seen among our peers at events. Cannes Lions has drawn criticism for (among other things) the glorification of excess, with yachts and huge exhibitions among its biggest selling points.

Some conferences and expos, well aware now of the negative association, often advertise their carbon offsetting or eco-friendly activities. SXSW, for example, has its own SXSW Eco offshoot, and climate change is listed among its key ‘tracks’ for its 2022 exhibition. As the report demonstrates, however, the sheer fact that travel to and from the conferences is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases means that any on-site offsetting is marginal at best.

With the best will in the world, even the clients with a public commitment to sustainability often choose the sustainability options that are best for their pocketbook rather than the planet. Recommendations around carbon offsetting therefore include encouraging attendees to offset their own travel through company donations, in addition to limiting the physical presence they have at the festivals through printed flyers.

Clean living

But while the future of the events industry is set to include more of the same, there are green shoots that indicate live events are changing for the better. The pandemic has demonstrated that virtual events are not just possible – they are often desirable. After a decade or more of reticence to charge for online events that lack the networking (and partying) of real-world events, audiences are now happy to pay for virtual attendance. There is parity between on- and off-line events in terms of pay, and plenty of huge players are leaping into the business of smaller-scale hybrid events again.

There is also a growing commercial consideration behind the drive for sustainable events. Audiences – particularly younger audiences – are prioritizing environmental impact when it comes to choosing which brands to support. It is a consistent source of interest, to the point that many media outlets are launching verticals dedicated to exploring climate sustainability. Bloomberg has launched Bloomberg Green, for example, while in the UK The Guardian has become a B Corp on the back of its mission.

Edward Heaney is strategic development director at PSI. He says: "As ‘sustainable intelligence’ and touchless technologies increase, so does the opportunity for brands to promote their values, sustainability credentials, and services in a more connected way.

"Increased investment in digitization across the travel journey, partly driven by consumers heightened hygiene concerns during the pandemic, are resulting in the travel experience going touchless which provides greater energy efficiency. Touchless technologies are allowing brands to develop digital first solutions that blur offline and online media communications for a richer, personalised and sustainable travel experience."

John Speers is head of strategy and owner of Kemosabe. Regarding the drive toward sustainability in the industry, he says: “Like any industry from fashion to electric cars, what the consumer wants the consumer usually pays premium for. It’s up to the industry to not treat sustainability as premium but the norm. To regenerate ourselves and our planet we have to change our way of doing things, to live by nature’s rules and create in everything we do the conditions for life to thrive and evolve. This is the central tenet by which our organizations, life and work must revolve.”

Being authentic, and avoiding greenwashing too, is high on the agenda for brands looking to reach those audiences. For B2C events at least, then, it is likely that a focus on sustainability will force the hand of the industry.

From festivals to retail installations to unmissable activations, we examine the avenues open to marketers to reach consumers enjoying their newfound freedom in The Drum’s Experiential Deep Dive.

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